One of the challenges in teaching dressage lies in formulating analogies and phrases to evoke the proper “feeling” between the horse and rider. On the technical side this includes teaching the mechanics of the movements, the relationship of the aids between the rider and horse, and the systematic use of the training scale. More imagination is required on the abstract side, as one must describe feelings. Elasticity, forwardness, throughness and many other dressage terms have either different definitions in the real world, or no application whatsoever.
Many times word selection is pivotal in eliciting the right response from the rider, both physically and emotionally. This obsession with word choice causes some clients annoyance as I use their questions and interpretations of their rides as indicators of their understanding of the training concepts and of their relationship with the horse. An example that comes readily to mind is the common malady, “he keeps throwing his head up!” Although visually this is true, the rider’s choice to focus on the horse’s head leads me to conclude that the rider does not understand that the horse’s head is not the problem, the problem is losing engagement and dropping the back, the head tossing is merely a symptom of this problem. When focusing on the horse’s head position the rider will usually correct the head tossing with the reins. This correction is temporary however, as the problem itself has been left unaddressed. By asking the rider to think and speak in terms of the horse’s back, as opposed the head, it increases the likelihood that he will take the steps necessary to correct the source of the problem, and not patch it up for a few strides with force.
“He keeps drifting out!” Another clue to a misunderstanding. If the horse is drifting, breaking stride, speeding up, slowing down or any other deviance from the rider’s intent it is not “his” fault. If he is doing it, it is likely that the rider is inadvertently asking him to do it. Pointing out this word choice problem is not one of my more popular speeches. It almost always merits an exasperated sigh and “you know what I mean”. The problem here is that, yes, I know the rider is trying to convey the nature of the error, however the words selected indicate that the rider believes the horse is responsible for the failure of the exercise. The same observation worded “I’m doing something that keeps allowing him to break or asking him to break” is more indicative that the rider is taking responsibility for the error, thus making correcting it a possibility.
A client of mine, a young rider that rehabilitates traumatized horses, used to describe resistance by the horse as “fighting”. Although I know that she is not using the word literally, or in any way being unkind to the horse, I stop her explanation every time the word fighting is included. It is important to me, as the trainer, that the relationship between the rider and the horse is one of teaching and understanding. If the rider feels that the horse is malevolent as opposed to confused then the course of action will be disciplinary instead of instructive. The word fighting indicates a combative stance with the horse that is not helpful in the training process. It is the responsibility of the instructor to ascertain the rider’s understanding of the training relationship. To assume an understanding, in spite of terminology to the contrary, can be a mistake the horse must pay for.
After each lesson use your own words to convey your understanding of the concepts addressed by your trainer. Your explanation may illuminate misunderstandings that prevent you from being the partner your horse deserves.